De Los Angeles as Manon

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Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped,

I would give the whole of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet’s Manon and would think that I had profited by the exchange

He was proabably only half serious, but I’ve always preferred Massenet’s setting of L’Abbé Prévost’s novel to Puccini’s. The Puccini tends to over-sentimentalise, where Massenet is much closer to the source material. Admittedly Massenet has Manon die before the couple sail to America, but in all other respects I’ve always felt that Massenet is much closer to the spirit of the original novel, and shows him in complete mastery of his craft, whereas Puccini’s opera is the work of a less experienced composer.

This classic  1955 recording has never really been bettered, and captures a style of performance practice you would never come across in today’s more international climate. Monteux, who conducted the work many times in the theatre, had the score in his bones as did his Opéra-Comique resources, and cast of French singers. The only non French singer is Manon herself, in the shape of Victoria De Los Angeles, who was nevertheless totally at home in French music, and well known the world over for her portrayal of Manon. She is unrivalled at conveying both the childlike innocence and worldly sensuality of the heroine, and she is here at her vocal best. Henri Legay might be considered a little too light of voice for Des Grieux, but he sings with elegance and style, and is totally convincing at suggesting the youth’s inexperience as well as his passion and obsession. The rest of the cast is as well nigh ideal as you could get, which leaves the small matter of the sound. EMI’s transfer is somewhat harsh and shrill, though it didn’t deter me from enjoying the set. It has also been reissued on Naxos and Testament, but I haven’t heard either of those, so can’t comment on whether they are any better.

Werther with Gedda and De Los Angeles

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Werther is an opera I like more each time I hear it. I first saw it back in 1970, in a lovely Glyndebourne production by Sir Michael Redgrave, when it toured to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Werther was sung by David Hughes, who had enjoyed quite a success as a pop singer before retraining as an opera singer. He suffered from heart problems and sadly died from heart failure the day after collapsing on stage during a performance of Madama Butterfly at the London Coliseum. He was only 47. Looking at the Glyndeboure archives for 1970, I see the role of Charlotte was sung by Yvonne Fuller, who looks absolutely ideal in photographs. I wonder what happened to her.

To be honest I can’t remember all that much about the performance other than that I enjoyed it immensely and it has remiained one of my favourite operas ever since. These days I often hear people berating the character of Werther for being so “wet”, for want of a better word, but surely that is a rather glib reaction, which betrays a lack of understanding of the whole Romantic movement, and especically the Sturm und Drang movement that the original Goethe novel partly inspired. Musically, it is one of Massenet’s best operas and I like it a lot more than some of his crowd pleaser operas, like Esclarmonde and Le roi de Lahore.

Werther has been extraordinarliy lucky on disc, right from its first recording, made in 1931 and featuring Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin under Elie Cohen. Other strong contenders include Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos under Michel Plasson, José Carreras and Frederica Von Stade under Colin Davis and, possibly best of all, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu under Antonio Pappano.

Though the title role has been sung by lyric tenors such as Tito Schipa and Ferrucio Tagliavini, it still needs a fair amount of heft, as was demonstrated when I saw the opera not long ago at Covent Garden. Both musically and dramatically Juan Diego Florez was underpowered and the opera consequently failed to make its usual effect. Gedda was also a lyric tenor, but his essentially lyric voice had a great deal more carrying power than that of Florez and he is an effective Werther, his singing, as always, musical and involved.

By his side is one of the best Charlottes on disc, maybe even the best. Though a soprano, De Los Angeles’s lower and middle voice has the richness the role demands and her characterisation is spot on. Only Von Stade on the Davis recording approaches her for charm and vulnerability. This is a great performance. There is also excellent support from Mady Mesplé as a delightful Sophie and Roger Soyer as Albert.

Prêtre tends to overdo the histrionics and the Cohen, Davis and Pappano are all much better conducted, with the Davis and Pappano also enjoying better sound. Nonetheless this is one of the best recordings of the opera around, and absolutely essential for De Los Angeles’s superb Charlotte.

Così fan tutte – ROH 27.01.1981

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I don’t know if I was actually at this performance, but I was definitely at one of the series this recording was taken from.

My memory hasn’t failed me and it really is as good as I remember.

Sir Colin Davis already had a famous studio recording to his credit and common to both are the saturnine Alfonso of Richard Van Allan. Other than that, his cast here is easily equal to that on the studio set, and, as far as the men are concerned, possibly surpasses it, with Stuart Burrows a more mellifluous, if les characterful, Ferrando than Gedda and Thomas Allen absolutely splendid as Guglielmo, indeed one of the best on record.

On the distaff side, I find it hard to choose between the two casts. Caballé was a glorious Fiordiligi in the studio, but Te Kanawa is hardly less so, and she is a much more volatile performer here than she often was, possibly spurred on by the vividly acted and sung Dorabella of Agnes Baltsa. Baker, in the studio set, is less histrionic, more gently lovable. I love both performances. Mazzucato is a sprightly Despina, delightfully knowing in her exchanges with Alfonso, but yields something in individuality to Cotrubas in the studio set.

This is 1981, and speeds are occasionally a little slower than we are used to these days, and one should note that, being live, there is a fair amount of stage noise, audience laughter and applause. Otherwise the sound is fine, if not as well balanced as a studio production.

I really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with this wonderful performance, and, though I won’t be throwing away my studio Davis or Böhm/EMI recordings, it sits quite happily on the shelf beside them.

The famous Giulini Don Giovanni

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Like the Karajan Der Rosenkavalier, Warner’s luxury presentation of this latest re-mastering of the famed Giulini Don Giovanni just adds a little more lustre to one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

It seems incredible to think that Giulini was actually a last minute replacement for Otto Klemperer, who was originally scheduled to record the opera with this cast but fell ill just as sessions started. We can be thankful now that he was available, for I can’t imagine that Klemperer could have produced the kind of quicksilver, thrillingly exciting performance we get here. The Philharmonia Orchestra were at that time at the top of their game and the orchestral playing is beyond praise. One of the main attractions of the set is the execution of the recitatives, which are brim full of drama and character, no doubt a result  of Walter Legge’s excellent production, and the whole recording feels like a real performance, with the singers brilliantly interacting with each other.

The cast is, without exception, superb; Sutherland, in her first major recording, a beautiful and technically assured Anna; Schwarzkopf, who adopted, in her words, “a sharp, unfriendly tone” to offset Sutherland’s creaminess, a real firebrand of an Elvira; Sciutti a delectably seduceable Zerlina. The men are hardly less brilliant, with Wächter’s dangerously sexy Don almost the equivalent of a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbank Jnr character and Taddei’s manipulative Leporello nicely complementing him. Cappuccilli is a real bully of a Masetto and Frick a commanding and ultimately terrifying Commendatore. If Alva makes slightly less of an impression, that has more to do with the rather passive character of Ottavio than his singing of Ottavio’s lovely arias.

One of the all time classics, beautifully re-furbished in this new re-master.

The Callas Turandot revisited

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A short while ago I listened to the Mehta and Karajan recordings of Puccini’s last opera, both of which have a great deal to commend them, though the Mehta is the most obvious recommendation, with a superb cast headed by Sutherland, who is surprisingly convincing in what is surely an uncharacteristic role. The Mehta is the recording I usually recommend to anyone wanting a single recording of Turandot.

I then decided to revisit the Callas recording, which I hadn’t listened to in quite some time. Now common opinion (and memory) tells us that Callas, having recorded the role of Turandot a little late in her career, is wobbly and vocally unstable, that Schwarzkopf is out of her element, Fernandi a complete non-entity, Serafin reliable but uninspired and the mono recording not up to the demands of this aurally spectacular opera.

Well memory, and therefore common opinion, turned out to be rather faulty on this occasion.

In one respect, that regarding the recording, memory was correct. The mono sound is boxy and this, of all operas, cries out for the kind of aural spectacular we get in the Mehta and Karajan performances. It is a great shame for the performance, led with a wonderfully natural sense of rhythm and balance by Serafin fully deserves a better aural soundscape. The lead up to the finale of the first act is particularly thrilling and Serafin even manages to make much more musical sense of Alfano’s ending, which becomes much less of an anti-climax than usual. However no amount of re-mastering can disguise the fact that the mono sound cannot contain the splendours of the performance.

So what about the singers?

Schwarzkopf might not sound quite Italianate, it is true, but her Liu is gorgeously sung and phrased right from the first moments when she sings that breathtaking piano top note on Perché un dì…nella reggia, mi hai sorriso. . Then in Signore, ascolta, she manages a perfect mesa di voce on the final note, as intrsucted in the score. Another highlight is the little mini aria before Tu che di gel sei cinta, again beautifuly shaded and shaped. It’s a performance full of veiled sighs and tears and I like it very much.

Fernandi, who appears to have done little else on disc, makes much more of an impression than I remembered, with a fine ring to his voice. His phrasing is occasionally a little four square, but, taken on his own terms, it is a thoroughly acceptable performance, if without the personality of a Bjoerling, Corelli or Pavarotti. Zaccaria is a sonorous, warmly sympathetic Timur.

As for Callas, well of course I might have wished that she’d recorded the role even three years earlier, when she sang a vocally resplendent In questa reggia on her Puccini Recital, and certainly there are times when the role is obviously stretching her to her limits, but her voice is a lot more secure than she is usually given credit for, and indeed we’ve heard much wider vibratos and more wobbly singing from many of the singers who have followed, especially from some of the ones who are around now. What we also get is the most psychologically penetrating traversal of Turandot’s psyche as you are likely to hear. This Turandot is not just a mythical creature with splendid top notes, she is a real person. We understand that it is Turandot’s insecurity and fear that make her so cruel. We also understand why so many princes could have fallen under her spell. One might argue that Turandot is after all just a fairy tale, and doesn’t require such a degree of psychological complexity, and it’s certainly a valid point. However I, for one, find the insights Callas brings to the role make it so much more interesting.

So, in all but matters of sound, I would call this a great Turandot.

If anyone is interested you can read my original review of the set here.

Lorin Maazel’s Il Trittico

Excellent performances of Puccini’s tryptich, though, of the three, only Suor Angelica would be my absolute top choice.

A word first about the presentation of this budget release. These days I suppose we have become used to not getting texts and translations, but documentation n this reissue is really of the minimum, and tracking of the CDs is a ludicrous; just one track for Il Tabarro, and two each for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.

Nothing really wrong with Maazel’s conducting. I sometimes find him a fussy conductor, who draws attenttion to himself rather than the music, but I enjoyed these performances. His conducting is spacious and warm throughout, though I’d have to admit he misses some of the high spirits of Gianni Schicchi.

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Despite the excellent performances of Scotto and Domingo in Il Tabarro, I still prefer the old mono recording conducted by Vincenzo Bellezza, which is dominated by Gobbi’s darkly menacing, but troubled Michele. It is one of his greatest achievements on disc, and, good though Wixell is, he doesn’t begin to match Gobbi in emotional range. Scotto and Domingo are far preferable to their counterparts on the older recording, but Gobbi is irreplaceable.

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In Gianni Schicci, Gobbi is up against himself in an earlier recording, conducted by Gabriele Santini with a degree more urgency than we get here. Gobbi is as sharply characterful as ever, but the other soloists on that earlier recording are a tad more individual than those on this one, and it just generates a bit more fun and high spirits. Domingo, expertly lightening his voice, manages Rinuccio surprisingly well, but it’s still a bit like getting a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and Ileana Cotrubas is a charming Lauretta, if not quite eclipsing memories of Victoria De Los Angeles on the earlier recording.

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When it comes to Suor Angelica, I would have to admit that Scotto’s top notes can be afflicted with hardness and unsteadiness, but that she presents the most intense, most psycholgically penetrating traversal of the role I’ve heard. Between them Scotto and Maazel turn what is often a piece of quasi religioso sentimentality into a mini psychodrama about the effects of repression, almost echoing some of the themes in Powell and Pressburger’s darly intense movie Black Narcissus. Much as I like recordings featuring De Los Angeles and Ricciarelli, this one is much more gripping as drama. It’s defnitely the prize of the set.

Pappano’s La Rondine

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Though Puccini’s attempt at Viennese operetta was a great success at its premiere in Monte Carlo, it failed to excite the Italian public, garnering disappointing reviews at its first Italian performance in Bologna and going down even less well with critics when it reached the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. Consequently it never quite achieved the popularity of La BohèmeToscaMadama Butterfly or Turandot, let alone Manon LescautLa Fanciulla del West or even Il Trittico, though this recording and the production which followed it at Covent Garden (with the same two leads) went a long way to changing that and it is performed much more often now than it once was.

Although there had been two previous recordings, one with Anna Moffo as Magda and another with Te Kanawa and Domingo in the two leading roles, both excellent in their own way, this one swept the board and won the prestigious Gramophone Record of the Year award, along with a plethora of others. What principally sets it apart from those previous recordings is the superb conducting of Antonio Pappano and the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra at the top of their form.

It also has both Gheorghiu and Alagna, at the height of their game, in roles which were ideal for themmuch more specific in their responses to the text and drama than the somewhat generalised Domingo and Te Kanawa, more vocally glamorous than Moffo and Baroni. We also have a nicely contrasted secondary couple in Inva Mula and Wiliam Mateuzzi.

The recording also adds a new entrance aria for Ruggero, based on a song by Puccini (Morire?), which is included as an appendix. The opera being rather short, EMI also included excerpts from Puccini’s first opera Le Villi, which whet the appetite and only make you wish they’d recorded the whole thing.

It is a charming if slight work and this gorgeous recording definitely takes the palm as the best to be had. Highly recommended.

Mehta’s La Fanciulla del West

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Zubin Mehta’s recording of Turandot with Sutherland, Pavarotti and Caballé is justly famous, but his recording of La Fanciulla del West is arguably just as good, and in fact won a tranche of awards when it was first released back in 1977.

It is based on performances of a spectacular new production at Covent Garden (which I saw in revival with the same two leads). The main difference in the recording from the stage performances is that Sherrill Milnes replaces Silvano Carroli as Jack Rance, presumably because he was a bigger name.

All three stars certainly acquit themselves admirably and Carol Neblett, who for a short time was the Minnie to see is just about perfect in the role, warmer voiced than Nilsson and securer on high than Tebaldi. Supporting roles are all well characterised, with a superb contribution from Gwynne Howell as Jake Wallace, and there is a great feeling of ensemble about the performance.

The score is surely one of Puccini’s finest, though I still find its setting somewhat incongruous. Still, this is a great recording of a very fine work and well worth anyone’s attention.

Giulini’s Il Trovatore

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Giulini’s Il Trovatore makes for very enjoyable listening, even if, in the final analysis, it lacks the sheer excitement and thrill of the Callas/Karajan set. As always with Giulini, tempos tend to be measured, giving his singers plenty of room to breathe and expand, but I do miss Karajan’s superb rhythmic swagger and verve. It makes for a more reflective and thoughtful performance than usual, but I’m not sure that is what Il Trovatore needs.

That said there is some excellent singing from an unusual group of singers. Plowright has exactly the right tinta for Leonora, the tone darkly plangent, the coloratura well executed, but nowhere does she light up a phrase the way Callas does and Leonora remains a somewhat two-dimensional character. Domingo is actually better here than he was for Mehta, more inside the role and his voice more free on top, though the (unwritten) top Cs in Di quella pira still sound somewhat strained and I remember there was a bit of a hoo-hah about him omitting them when he sang the role at Covent Garden around the same time this recording was made. Zancanaro is a most musical Di Luna, and Nesterenko gets the opera off to a rousing start.

The most controversial piece of casting is no doubt that of Fassbaender as Azucena, and her intelligent portrayal is thoroughly thought through and beautifully sung, with a lieder singer’s attention to detail. It is a considerable achievement, but she does not erase memories of singers like Simionato and Barbieri in the role, both of whom are more naturally suited to the music.

In short, a musical and thoughtful traversal of the score, which just misses that last degree of passion and excitement. It certainly doesn’t oust the Callas/Karajan set from my affections, but compliments it very nicely.

Karajan’s Second Studio Carmen

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I saw Baltsa and Carreras in Carmen at Covent Garden shortly before this set was issued, and it remains one of the most thrilling performances (of anything) I’ve ever seen. Consequently I was very excited when this set was issued and snapped it up immediately.

Unfortunately, it proved something of a disappointment, the fault for which must lie squarely on Karajan’s shoulders. By this time measured tempi were becoming the norm for him, and it is evident how much he loves this score, but he rather loves it to death. For all the beautiful playing of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, it lacks completely the wit and elegance of Beecham, or the swift visceral excitement of Prêtre.

Having taken the decision to record the version with spoken dialogue, it seems totally perverse to then use actors to speak it. They sound nothing like their singing counterparts and are recorded in a totally different acoustic, which makes it hard to become involved when the differences are so profound. It’s like listening to two different productions at the same time, and does the most harm to Baltsa and Carreras, who were so involving and communicative live at Covent Garden. Indeed neither of them really settles down to a real performance until the final duet, which is thrillingly powerful, as it should be.

What on earth prompted Karajan to think that Ricciarelli, a singer I often admire could be perfect as both Micaëla and Turandot, which she also recorded with him? She is suited to neither, whereas Barbara Hendricks, who had a particular affinity for French music, and who sings a wonderful Liu on that Turandot he recorded the previous year would have been perfect.

Van Dam is a fine Escamillo, as he was for Solti and there are some good performances among the supporting roles, but it just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole.

I keep the recording for the contributions of Baltsa and Carreras, and often listen to the final duet, but listening to the whole recording is a curiously frustrating experience, and I mostly longed to be back chez Callas, Gedda and Prêtre, which remains my favourite recording of the opera, for all that it uses the now discredited Guiraud recitatives.